Monday, April 4, 2016
Todd Solondz's STORYTELLING
This is a movie that you can't simply put away into the corner of your mind and get on with your day (or, you could, but then why bother to engage with it in the first place). It ended on a final line that I found like a rather big smug 4th wall break (even as it's through the main teenager of the "non-fiction" story), but other than that this is a film that is incredibly rich with acidic satire. This isn't even about that it's a black comedy, it's an out-front assault against suburbia, but also suburban movies. It's no accident that when Paul Giamatti's character, a fledging documentary filmmaker, has moments as he narrates over images of small-town landscapes, including one that is just something floating in the breeze, that it feels like a knives-out stab at American Beauty.
This is Solondz just pissed the hell off at his critics, which is interesting since by and large his first widely released films - Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness - were largely praised in the press and by audiences. But there was a contingent of people who did go after him for, you know, making his characters look like losers. I think that Solondz's point with a group of oddballs like the ones in Happiness (some of which are basically criminals) is that it's all too easy to judge anyone, and you can look in the mirror or look to people you know and see things that shouldn't be such a rush to judge.
If there's anything in Storytelling that feels under attack most centrally it's the idea of what happens with empathy when CONTROL is the key thing: do you feel for someone else's pain, whether they're trying to create something like a piece of writing or a movie, or if they're another race or they're under-class or not? Can you possibly feel for someone else if you're so well off that you don't hear the s***ty words coming out of your mouth?
The film is split in two parts, with the first, "Fiction", almost closer to being a long-ish short film about a college creating writing class and what happens when Vi (Selma Blair) is dumped by her retarded boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick, yes, of Kids fame, and he's very good here for his few scenes), and has a one-night stand (which is the polite way to put it) with her black writing teacher. The second half, which is about an hour long, is the "non-fiction" portion with Giamatti focusing on a high school burn-out (Mark Webber, you might recall him as Stephen Stills in Scott Pilgrim) applying for college and having a family that is, surprise, really effed-up.
I wondered near the end if the movie should've just all been the 'non-fiction' portrait, but I think it works that it's this length and these two stories reflect how the world, our lives, are how we choose to distort it (I'm paraphrasing from Deconstructing Harry, but I'm sure Solondz has seen that, or at least Crimes and Misdemeanors for that matter). How do you want to be perceived by others? If you put a piece of writing that is "all true", it doesn't matter, and all that matters is how *good* the writing is - or how the teacher says, it's all fiction once it's written. This may not be the deepest thought ever in a film, but it works well within this movie to illustrate how the characters try to kid themselves, most of them, left and right (as soon as Marcus is done having sex he wants Vi to read his writing, to be liked as much as possible with a new ending attached).
Meanwhile in the story with Giamatti and Webber (with John Goodman given a juicy supporting role as the dad, an uptight straight-and-narrow dummy if you'd ever think to meet one in the suburbs), the movie that Toby Oxman is making is all so he can appear to be great (he calls up a woman he hasn't seen in years and surely won't talk to again about what he's up to, not so much what she's doing).
This may be a dig from Solondz more-so at documentaries where the humanity of the real-life people is distorted for the purposes of the narrative - on a message board I went to about the movie American Movie was brought up, but I also thought of Michael Moore also - but it also comes back to how his movies tend to frame these real life people and ask the audience to meet him halfway at the friggin' least. And you may laugh along the way at times; the highlight for me being when Scooby is having a 'trip' of sorts, imagining his parents burning alive (an unintentionally ominous vision, by the way), and then imagines meeting Conan O'Brian. And it goes... amazingly!
There's also a storytline that is key, and at first I wasn't sure where it was doing, involving the youngest son Mikey and the housekeeper. A lot that has to do with morality and feeling for another person (and, indeed, what 'rape' really means) comes up with this younger son's storyline, and I think Solondz is provoking us to the point that it's bound to make people angry once more. And hey, why not? We should be angry about the privileged white upper-middle class (or what MLK called the "white moderate"), though I'm not sure by the very end if he entirely lets off Consuelo the housekeeper off the hook either. He's a brat, she's an immigrant worker, and bad things ensue all from what one might call lack of parenting, or something deeper and uglier that Solondz is showing us here. There may even be an underlying question with Mikey: could we ever, in a million years, empathize with *him*? Not very likely (unless if he was misdiagonsed as having Asperger's or... no, he's a brat, right?)
It may not actually be ultimately *that* far from what American Beauty also did, but if there's a darker stretch that Storytelling wants to get into that 'Beauty' didn't is that, in reality, a kid like Mikey or Toby the filmmaker can be empathized with or really 'grow' as a character in Beauty might. There's also things like Columbine hanging in the background (it's mentioned briefly but I don't think it's insignificant), and how audiences can be manipulated by film itself without thinking more about what they're seeing.
It's a strange thing that while writing this review and thinking about the movie in the past hour or so since watching it, the movie's grown in estimation in my mind. It's not very long at all at 86 minutes, but it has a lot going for it and, with the exception of the last line (which I just kind of hated, point notwithstanding) and a couple of small logic points (a car that gets suddenly stolen is a plot convenience and nothing more in the last stretch of the film), it's a very powerful and darkly funny drama - not really a comedy in the way that you'll leave feeling like you escaped from something, more like you had some wild, harrowingly-despairing belly laughs while rolling around in the moral filth of this landscape - and with strong performances from Giamatti and Goodman and Webber and some others too.